Best tunes of 1990: #28 The Wonder Stuff “Circlesquare”

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Song number twenty-eight on this young list is a non-album single from Stourbridge, England’s finest, The Wonder Stuff.

These guys were one of my favourite bands through the 1990s, having picked up on them almost by accident in the very early days of my music explorations. I found their debut album, “Eight legged groove machine”, in my friend Elliott’s cassette tape collection one day and borrowed it, liking the look of the cover and the sound of the names of both the band and the album. I listened to it constantly thereafter, loving the angst-ridden pop sensibility and the sneering attitude of the frontman, Miles Hunt. They sounded unlike anything I was hearing on Canadian radio at the time and though they did eventually become a big deal in England, they never really made it here in North America. Very few people that I knew ever heard of them so it was like having a favourite band all to myself.

The band formed in 1986 and originally comprised of Hunt (vocals, guitar), Malc Treece (guitar), Martin Gilks (drums), and Rob “The bass thing” Jones (on bass, of course). They released a string of four albums between 1986 and 1994, adding and losing members along the way, before ultimately falling to pieces just prior to completing the tour cycle for their fourth album. The band reunited in 2000 for a one-off show that turned into a handful of sold out gigs in England that year. Four years later, Miles Hunt announced he would be soldiering on under The Wonder Stuff moniker with only Malc Treece from the original lineup and a couple of new members. They have since released four albums of new material and continue to play live.

I never actually heard the song “Circlesquare” until a couple of years after it was released, and even then, it was a stripped-down acoustic version of the song that was included as a B-side on the “Welcome to the cheap seats” double EP. It wasn’t until after they broke up and released their career spanning retrospective, “If the Beatles had read Hunter”, that I got my first glimpse at the original.

“Circlesquare” is classic Hunt. Jaded and self-deprecating even way back then, even at a time when life must’ve been good for the band. “I’ve been a long term disappointment to myself, but it hits like a hammer when I’m that to someone else.” Hunt wails away on his acoustic while Treece, his partner in guitar crime, cranks up the machine gun effects pedals, Gilks gets funky with drums and Martin Bell (aka Fiddly) fills every vacant cranny with his fiddle flourishes. It’s an almost perfect snapshot of the band in flux, having been recorded after “The bass thing” left the band and Martin Bell became an official member and just before new bassist Paul Clifford joined. It’s a blend of their electric and electrifying, high energy pop off their aforementioned debut and the acerbic, fiddle crazy folk rock of their most popular album, 1991’s “Never loved Elvis”.

If you’ve never experienced The Wonder Stuff before, you could do worse than start here.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #29 Sinéad O’Connor “Nothing compares 2 U”

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Our second stop on my favourite tunes of 1990 series is a cover, and oh, what a cover. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that Sinéad O’Connor’s massive hit single was originally written by Prince and recorded by The Family, one of his side projects.

I’ll never forget the first time that I saw the now iconic video on the CHUM FM 30 music video countdown. It focused almost solely in closeup of the beautiful vocalist’s face, catching every nuance of emotion in her grey-blue eyes, even the most subtle, those not already felt in her vocals, and in the few moments when the camera panned away, she was caught walking alone in a park in France, her shaved head ducking beneath the collar of a large and shapeless overcoat. And that voice, it was unparalleled at the time, and though since then, there have been many who have been influenced by her and have sung in a similar style, none have ever sounded quite like Sinéad O’Connor.

The Irish born singer got her start as a solo artist in the late eighties, releasing her debut album, “The lion and the cobra”, to almost universal acclaim in 1987. Still, the ridiculous commercial success came three years later in 1990 when she unveiled, “I do not want what I haven’t got”, featuring the now classic “I am stretched on your grave”, “Emperor’s new clothes”, ‘Three babies”, and this track. O’Connor has since recorded and released eight more albums, including 2014’s “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”, but none of those have ever reached the same levels of success as her first two albums. I don’t think that these were beginner’s luck per se or that she lost her edge at all, but it’s quite possible that her outspoken nature and her controversial, extra-musical activities might have turned off her mainstream audiences.

But still we have this song, “Nothing compares 2 U”. To this day, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard The Family’s original recording of the tune but I have heard a live version that Prince later performed (after Sinéad’s recording) in duet with Rosie Gaines and I have to say that the cover is better. Both versions deal with loss but O’Connor is able to drum up more emotion, both raging anger and intense sadness, in her reflections on losing her mother to an automobile accident than Prince is able to ruminating on a broken down relationship. The instrumentation on O’Connor’s cover isn’t all that intricate, being only layers of plaintive strings over a simple but insistent beat. Truly, it all comes down to that power in her voice and it could move mountains.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.